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Helping Children Establish Healthy Habits

Children look to role models, especially their parents, when learning about their health and bodies. Teaching your children the importance of caring for their minds and bodies sets them up for healthier, happier lives.

This could result in fewer childhood illnesses, fewer doctor visits and lower cost healthcare, and less stress trying to make doctor and specialist appointments. Telegra MD helps reduce stress on parents by offering 24-hour access to an online doctor, which makes it possible to receive an online diagnosis even in the midst of a busy day.  

The Importance of Healthy Eating Habits

Create a healthy home environment for your children by keeping healthy food options readily available, limiting access to sugary treats and unhealthy snacks and beverages, and encouraging everyone to eat together.

Developing a good relationship with food and body image in early childhood can reduce the risk of eating disorders and the chronic diseases associated with poor nutrition. About one-third of all children and adolescents in the United States are classified as being overweight,1 of these 20% have the chronic disease obesity.2  

Obesity is a complex, multifactorial, chronic disease that increases the risk of other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, arthritis, depression, and certain types of cancer. Obesity is associated with almost 200 metabolic, mechanical, and mental health comorbidities.3

Having obesity increases a child’s risk of the following conditions:1

  • Early puberty of childhood
  • Menstrual irregularities in adolescents
  • Prediabetes
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Depression and anxiety

The correlation between obesity and heart disease is strong. Offering your child meals and snacks that are nutritious, age-appropriate, and well-balanced can lead to better health now and in the future.

Children preparing healthy food

Making Nutrition Fun and Interactive

Feeding toddlers and even older children can be a chore. Fluctuations in your child’s appetite, changing food preferences, and picky eating mean that yesterday’s go-to healthy meals are rejected today. In one study, researchers found that 25% of children between 1.5 to 5 years are picky eaters, and up to 45% were described as having a “feeding problem”.4

It is important for children to listen to their body’s cues in terms of how much to eat and food preferences, but it is also important to expose your child to a wide variety of nutritious foods. Offer small amounts of a new food with each meal. Most children will not accept new foods on their first exposure, but curiosity and hunger may make them willing to try a bite or two when they see you enjoying a portion of new (to them) food.

Tips for overcoming picky eating:

  • Involve your child in growing food, selecting it at a grocery store, and preparing it.
  • Allow your child to cut or tear food into interesting shapes, use a dip, or make a design.
  • Be patient and persistent as you introduce your child to new foods.
  • Offer a variety of foods and avoid labeling any food as good or bad.
  • Don’t force or bribe your child to eat certain foods.
  • Avoid using food as a reward.  
  • Limit sugary beverages. They make it easy to feel full quickly.
  • Keep portion sizes small for new foods.

Understanding Portion Control

Large food portions can overwhelm children, especially when foods are unfamiliar to them. Children have smaller stomachs and lower caloric needs. Use child-size plates. Encourage your child to pay attention to hunger and fullness cues. They should stop eating when they feel full.

It is better to put small food portions from every food group on your child’s plate and offer seconds than to put a larger portion on their plate initially and insist that they “clean their plates.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should be aware that a toddler’s growth slows when compared to their first year, so the amount of food they eat may appear smaller than expected.

A general rule to follow is that a child between the ages of 1 and 3 needs about 40 calories per day for each inch of height. A child’s serving size is approximately one-fourth of an adult’s.

Children ages 4 to 8 should have a portion size of about one-third of an adult’s. Portion size for older children and teens should approximate a healthy portion size for an adult.5

When offering food to children, check the serving size on the package or recipe. Offer a single serving at a time. This will help your child learn what a portion of food is supposed to look like.

Young adults exercising

Encouraging Regular Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is important for everyone, but especially for children, as they gain muscle strength, balance, and coordination. A sedentary lifestyle has health effects, including an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and injuries.

Incorporating Exercise in Daily Routine

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidelines for physical activity for children of all ages. Engaging in outdoor activities as a family makes exercise fun and builds connections between people.

  • Age 3-5: incorporate physical activity throughout the day as active play. Provide opportunities for your child to engage in active play that allow them to develop new physical and problem-solving skills.
  • Age 6-17: encourage your child to engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Choose a mix of aerobic exercises that improve cardiovascular fitness. Add muscle and bone strengthening exercises at least twice per week. Muscle strengthening exercises are any that cause your muscles to do more work than they would during normal daily activities. Bone strengthening exercises, including running and jumping, encourage bone thickening and increased density.

Moderate-to-vigorous exercise increases your heart rate and reduces your risk of heart disease. Learn more in this guide to heart-healthy exercise.

Choosing Age-Appropriate Activities

Encourage your child to pursue sports and informal activities they enjoy and can incorporate into their daily life.

Young children

  • Outdoor play
  • Gymnastics
  • Dance
  • Playing on a jungle gym or climbing apparatus
  • Swimming
  • Active games
  • Martial arts
  • Jumping
  • Bike riding
  • Nature walks
  • Balance games

Older children and adolescents

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Weightlifting
  • Bicycling
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Yard work
  • Jumping rope
  • Resistance exercises

If your child does not engage in enough physical activity throughout the day, encourage slow increases in activity. For example, plan a family walk after dinner, have a basketball pickup game, and hike in a nearby park. Cleaning the house and yard work are ways to increase physical activity and reduce family stress!

A child sleeping

Fostering Healthy Sleeping Patterns

Sleep is integral to a child’s physical growth, emotional health, and cognitive development. Sleep is an active process. Surges of growth hormone that promote physical growth and development in childhood are released during sleep.

Sleep is also essential for healthy brain development and learning. During sleep, your child’s brain consolidates and processes new information.

Sleep affects metabolism, appetite, immune function, endocrine and cardiovascular health. Better sleep quality is associated with better overall health, less daytime sleepiness, improved feelings of well-being, and better psychological health.6 Lack of sleep can lead to increased irritability, mood swings, behavioral issues, concentration problems, and difficulty performing at school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following total sleep times over 24 hours:

  • Infants under 1 year: 12-16 hours
  • Children 1-2 years old: 11-14 hours
  • Children 3-5 years old: 10-13 hours
  • Children 6-12 years old: 9-12 hours
  • Teenagers 13-18 years old: 8-10 hours

Some children have trouble getting or staying asleep. Although your child may need slightly less sleep than these recommendations, if they show signs that they are not getting enough sleep, contact an online doctor at Telegra MD to discuss your child’s insomnia.

Setting a Consistent Bedtime

Approximately one-third of children under the age of five have at least some form of sleep disruption, and 40% of infants with a sleep problem continue to have sleep problems throughout early childhood.7,8 A consistent bedtime is essential to help regulate your child’s internal clock (circadian rhythm). Children who have a consistent bedtime are more likely to get enough sleep each night.

Tips for establishing a consistent bedtime:

  • Create a calming bedtime routine, such as a warm bath followed by a story.
  • Ensure a comfortable sleeping environment, and check lighting and temperature.
  • Limit screen time before bedtime.
  • Be consistent in handling requests such as a drink of water or another book.
  • Keep your bedtime routine short and consistent.
  • Offer limited choices.
  • Be careful about excessive daytime napping.

Try to keep a consistent bedtime, even on weekends and during the summer. A successful bedtime routine is hard to establish and easy to disrupt.

Creating a Restful Sleep Environment

To facilitate sleep, it is a good idea to create a restful sleep environment that is age appropriate.9

  • Ensure your child has an age and size-appropriate bed with a comfortable mattress and pillow (if appropriate for age).
  • Offer extra blankets.
  • Use blackout shades or heavy curtains to darken the room.
  • Ensure a comfortable sleeping temperature.
  • Allow your child to personalize their room and make it appealing to them.
  • Don’t put a TV or computer in your child’s bedroom.
  • If desired, add a nightlight or glow-in-the-dark stickers to add some light to the room.
  • Some children may like a white noise machine or audiotape for calming.
A child meditating

Cultivating Emotional and Mental Well-being

Childhood is a time of enormous physical, psychological, and social growth. Social and emotional health affect childhood development, the ability to learn, and physical health. Poor emotional health, stress, and anxiety can lead to headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue. Chronic stress is also associated with impaired heart health and immune function.  

Teaching Stress Management Techniques

Emotional and mental health are closely tied to social skills, relationship building, resilience, coping skills, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Teach children to manage their stress using one or more than one of the following techniques:

  • Deep breathing: Have your child focus on their breathing. Take slow deep breaths while feeling their belly expand with air. Slowly exhale air over a count of 4.
  • Physical activity: Encourage physical activity when your child is feeling stressed. Physical activity boosts mood and reduces anxiety.
  • Mindfulness: Teach your child simple mindfulness and grounding exercises. Have them focus on one or two objects in their environment while slowly breathing or doing a progressive relaxation exercise.
  • Creative expression: If your child enjoys art, music, dance, or another form of creative expression, encourage them to engage in their favorite activities when they feel stressed.
  • Humor: Encourage the use of humor to express emotions in a light-hearted way and reduce stress.

Encouraging Social Interactions

Social interactions are important for mental and emotional health at all ages, but children differ in how much social engagement they consider stimulating and when it becomes stressful.

Young children learn about relationships from family members. Older children develop relationships with teachers, coaches, and peers. Children who develop trusting relationships with role models are more comfortable trying new tasks, expressing their ideas, solving problems, and asking questions.10

DISCLAIMER

While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.

References:

1. Kansra AR, Lakkunarajah S, Jay MS. Childhood and Adolescent Obesity: A Review. Front Pediatr. 2021 Jan 12;8:581461. doi: 10.3389/fped.2020.581461. PMID: 33511092; PMCID: PMC7835259.

2. Trust for America’s Health. The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. 2021:91. https://www.tfah.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/2021ObesityReport_Fnl.pdf

3. Yuen M, Lui D, Kaplan L. A systematic review and evaluation of current evidence reveals 195 obesity-associated disorders (OBAD). Obesity Week. 2016

4. Machado BC, Dias P, Lima VS, Campos J, Gonçalves S. Prevalence and correlates of picky eating in preschool-aged children: A population-based studyEat Behav. 2016;22:16-21. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.03.035

5. American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners. PEDIATRICS Vol. 117 No. 2 February 2006, pp. 544-559.

6. Harvey AG, Stinson K, Whitaker KL, Moskovitz D, Virk H. The subjective meaning of sleep quality: a comparison of individuals with and without insomnia. Sleep. Mar 2008;31(3):383-93. doi:10.1093/sleep/31.3.383

7. Staples AD, Bates JE, Petersen IT. Bedtime routines in early childhood: prevalence, consistency, and associations with nighttime sleep. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 2015 Mar;80(1):141-59. doi: 10.1111/mono.12149. PMID: 25704740; PMCID: PMC4843998.

8. Touchette E, Petit D, Paquet J, Boivin M, Japel C, Tremblay RE, Montplaisir JY. Factors associated with fragmented sleep at night across early childhood. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005 Mar;159(3):242-9. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.159.3.242. PMID: 15753267.

9. Vriend, Corkum P. Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2011;4:69-79
https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S14057

10. O’Connor, E., & K. McCartney. 2007. “Examining Teacher–Child Relationships and Achievement as Part of an Ecological Model of Development.” American Educational Research Journal 44 (2): 340–69.

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